Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 20, 2009

2009.12.20 “A Tale of Two Christmas Songs”

    Central United Methodist Church

“A Tale of Two Christmas Songs”

Pastor David L. Haley

4th Sunday of Advent

December 20th, 2009

     “And Mary said, I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened — I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!  What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It’s exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham right up to now.”  (Luke 1: 46b – 55, The Message)

When I was in the first grade, a couple of grade school bullies roughed me up on the playground.  I was just a little kid and didn’t know how to deal with it. 

When I got home, my father taught me a life lesson. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like this: “I don’t ever want to hear of you starting a fight, but if you have to fight, I don’t want to hear of you losing.”  It was, perhaps, a lesson passed on genetically from our Scots-Irish heritage, but one that I’ve never forgotten.

Many of us here today may have a similar story, because as we sit here today, if we’re not a bully, at one time or another we’ve likely been a victim, not the “top dog,” but the “underdog” in a fight, whether against a bully or faceless bureaucracies. 

Did you know that even Harrison Ford (yes, Indiana Jones), when he attended Maine East High School in Park Ridge in the late 1950’s, was a shy kid bullied by others?  Each day, the hard kids would take the future Indiana Jones to the edge of the road where the playground sloped down, beat him up and throw him into the bushes.  He would never fight back.

Because so many of us have had such an experience, we – especially in America – have a strong sympathy for the underdog.

That this is true is borne out this morning in “The Tale of Two Christmas Songs”: “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,” and the Song of Mary, as found in the Gospel of Luke.

First, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.”  Unlike previous Sundays, I’m not going to show the movie, because I think it’s far less popular than the song.  Let’s sing it!  Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer . . .

      What does a reindeer (something we don’t have a lot of around here), especially one with a red nose, have to do with Christmas anyway?

Rudolph came to life in 1939 when the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward company asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth University, to come up with a Christmas story they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick.

Mr. May, drawing in part on the tale of The Ugly Duckling and his own background as a child who was often bullied for being shy, small, and slight, (in fact, he was only five feet tall when he was grown), settled on the idea of an underdog ostracized by the reindeer community because of his physical abnormality: a glowing red nose.

Looking for an alliterative name, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful and carefree for a misfit) and Reginald (too British) before deciding on Rudolph. He then proceeded to write Rudolph’s story in verse, as a series of rhyming couplets, testing it out on his 4-year-old daughter Barbara as he went along.

Although Barbara was thrilled with Rudolph’s story, May’s boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose — an image associated with drinking — was unsuitable for a Christmas tale.  May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward’s art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen’s illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May’s bosses, and the Rudolph story was approved. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939, and although wartime paper shortages curtailed printing for the next several years, a total of 6 million copies had been given by the end of 1946.

The post-war demand for licensing Rudolph was tremendous, but since May had created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward, they held the copyright and he received no royalties. Deeply in debt from the medical bills resulting from his wife’s terminal illness (she died about the time May created Rudolph, just before Christmas in 1938), May persuaded Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947. With the rights to his creation in hand, May’s financial security was assured.

The Rudolph phenomenon really took off, however, when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song.  Marks’ musical version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was recorded by Gene Autry (the singing cowboy) in 1949, sold two million copies that year, and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time. A TV special about Rudolph narrated by Burl Ives was produced in 1964 and remains a popular perennial holiday favorite in the USA.

May quit his copywriting job in 1951 and spent seven years managing his creation before returning to Montgomery Ward, where he worked until his retirement in 1971. May died in 1976, comfortable in the life his reindeer creation had provided for him, and is buried in Saint Joseph Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois.

But the best news of the day is that if we have a sympathy for the underdog, so does God!  Here is the Word of God for us today: God has a heart for the least, for the lowly, for underdogs. 

That is the message of Luke’s Gospel, and especially the second of our songs, the Song of Mary, as found in Luke 1: 46b – 55.

In the Gospel, Mary is the young woman who said “Yes” to God, to bear the child Jesus, who for this, would come to be known as the “theotokos”, the God-bearer. For most of the history of the church, especially the Roman Catholic Church, she has served as the feminine face of God, venerated, if not worshiped. 

We Protestants, are sometimes not so sure what to make or do with Mary, because we wrongly somehow think she’s Catholic. Peter Gomes of Harvard tells the story about a former Dean of St. Paul’s in London — and you could substitute here almost any prominent Protestant theologian, teacher, or preacher — who arrives in heaven. Jesus comes down from God’s right hand and says, ‘Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you’ve met my Father, but I don’t believe you know my Mother.”

Most of the time Mary is missing from much of our tradition and practice and liturgy. Until Christmas, that is, when she shows up in the Crèche, and on countless Hallmark cards, looking, as someone said, as if she just returned from having her hair and nails done, to discover this chubby little baby waiting.

Who was Mary?  Likely a peasant teenager.  She was also a member of one of the most powerless nations of the mideast, a member of the tribe of Judah, one of the least of the twelve tribes of Israel, and she was a woman, engaged to a carpenter. Even her pregnancy and birth were an occasion of scandal and humiliating circumstance.

Accordingly, after learning of the great grace given to her, Mary sings a song for all underdogs everywhere, which we not only read in the Scriptures and sang with that fine Irish tune, which perhaps more than any other version I’ve seen, conveys the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

      Says Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

 “When God chooses Mary as the instrument, when God wants to enter this world in the manger in Bethlehem, this is not an idyllic family occasion, but rather the beginning of a complete reversal, a new ordering of all things on this earth.”

      What a comfort to us when we feel like we are down and out, without power or wealth, with the odds stacked against us, what a joy to know that God is on our side, because God has a heart for the least, for the lowly, for the underdog!

I think the reason “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is so popular is because it expresses, in a secular and popular style, the sentiments of the Song of Mary, which assures us God is for the underdog, whether the least of Santa’s reindeer, a humble peasant teenager from the least of the tribes of Israel, or us, when we feel like we’re a victim, the least, the lowliest, the underdog. 

With this, thus ends this sermon series, “Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood.” My prayer is that through the lens of these Hollywood productions, you have been able to better hear and understand appreciate what the Scriptures call us to in this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the Messiah. 

That “It is a Wonderful Life,” that “The day of struggle is the day of grace,” whether at the Apocalypse or as in the life of George Bailey. That what the preaching of John in the wilderness calls us to is no less than moral, ethical and spiritual transformation, as glimpsed in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch.  And, finally, that God is on the side of the underdog, whether in the story of the lowliest reindeer of all, or as in the revolutionary “Song of Mary,” peasant girl and God-Bearer.

May all of these work together as a preparation for the Gospel for us, that at Christmas, Christ may be born in us. 

This is the Gospel of the Lord; thanks be to God!


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